Ex-Malaysian premier’s final appeal of his corruption conviction is rejected, making him the Kajang Prison Complex’s newest inmate
By NILE BOWIE
SINGAPORE – In a historic unanimous ruling, Malaysia’s Federal Court on Tuesday (August 23) upheld former prime minister Najib Razak’s guilty conviction and a 12-year jail sentence on charges related to a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), sealing the 69-year-old’s fate as the Kajang Prison Complex’s newest inmate.
Najib, who simultaneously served as prime minister and finance minister from 2009-18, was found guilty in July 2020 of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering for illegally receiving US$10 million from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB. An appellate court last year upheld the guilty verdict along with a $46.7 million fine, prompting him to appeal again to the nation’s highest court.
“This is a very historic moment for Malaysia,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. “It is the first time in Malaysian history that a former prime minister has been jailed for corruption. There was a lot of suspicion that the judiciary would be influenced by the political class in this case, but the result is an affirmation of the leadership of the judiciary.”
Rejecting his request for a stay of sentence, a five-person bench led by Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat dismissed the ex-premier’s final appeal after Najib’s legal team, which was replaced just three weeks before his appeal began on August 15, declined to present their case in court, citing insufficient time to prepare their arguments due to the purported complexity of the case.
Widely seen as a delaying tactic, Najib claimed he opted to change lawyers to gain a “fresh perspective” on his case and accordingly had sought repeated adjournments of the hearing, which the court rejected. The presiding chief justice remarked that Najib’s legal team was given every opportunity to lodge oral submissions to the court but they refused to do so.
In a statement read from the docks before the Federal Court delivered a verdict, Najib claimed that the country’s judicial system had failed him.
“As an accused and appellant at the final stage of a case, it is the worst feeling to have, to realize that the might of the judicial machinery is pinned against me in the most unfair manner,” said the former premier, who pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak talks to media at Kuala Lumpur’s High Court after a hearing in the 1MDB financial fraud case on October 25, 2018. Photo: AFP via Andalou Agency / Adli Ghazali
During the five-day hearing, Najib’s lead counsel Hisyam Teh Poh Teik had also unsuccessfully tried to adduce fresh evidence in the case, adjourn the main hearing for three to four months and discharge himself from representing Najib on grounds of being inadequately prepared, all of which were unanimously rejected by the apex court.
Defense lawyers sought to admit evidence they said would prove Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali, the trial judge who initially convicted Najib, had a conflict of interest owing to his previous stint as the general counsel of Maybank Group, a commercial lender to 1MDB that had played an advisory role in the establishment of SRC International, and was thus at risk of bias.
In a last-gasp maneuver, Najib’s counsel sought to recuse the chief justice herself from hearing the trial, citing a Facebook post dated May 11, 2018, allegedly made by Tengku Maimun’s husband, Zamani Ibrahim, in which he purportedly expressed happiness at Najib’s being “dethroned” when the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost the 2018 general election amid public outrage over 1MDB.
“Zamani Ibrahim has expressed his views that clearly show his distaste and disgust towards me and that I am directly responsible for the 1MDB and SRC debacles… While I note the sentiments were raised by a spouse, it is not unreasonable to think that such sentiments are shared within the household, in a spousal relationship,” Najib claimed in an affidavit to support the recusal bid.
Deputy public prosecutor V Sithambaram described the recusal application as “the clearest abuse” of the court process and questioned why Najib’s lawyers had only filed the recusal application over the four-year-old social media post late Monday night. The top judge threw out the bid, ruling that there was no nexus between her husband’s post and that of the former premier’s appeal.
Four years on from his initial arrest in relation to dealings at SRC International, the Federal Court’s landmark ruling makes Najib the only person ever convicted in connection with the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. Prosecutors have said an estimated $4.5 billion was pilfered from the state fund, with more than $1 billion purportedly traced to the former premier’s personal bank accounts.
Fugitive Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho, or Jho Low, had been among the most prominent recipients of the siphoned public funds. Though Low had never held a formal position at 1MDB and had never been employed by the Malaysian government, he is widely thought to have acted as a proxy for the ex-premier for whom 1MDB functioned as a political slush fund.
For Low, the state fund served as an expense account for bottomless spending on luxury property, extravagant parties, movie production investments and other purchases that earned the sprawling multi-billion dollar scandal global repute. Malaysian authorities have been unable to serve charges to Low, who remains at large and is regarded as the country’s most wanted man.
Prior to Najib’s conviction and jailing, many had voiced frustration with the slow pace of justice in prosecuting 1MDB-related crimes amid delays due to the Covid-19 pandemic and what many regarded as a deliberate strategy of stalling legal proceedings by the former premier’s defense team, in turn delaying several other corruption-related trials the 69-year-old is still due to face.
Since becoming the first Malaysian premier to lose an election in 2018, Najib had mounted a political comeback that energized grassroots followers who believed him to be the victim of a political conspiracy. He emerged as a star campaigner for the resurgent BN coalition, which clinched a string of recent state election victories, emboldening the premier’s political relevance.
Having lost his final appeal, Najib still has one option left to overturn the verdict within the court system. His defense counsel can file a review at the Federal Court, seeking a panel of judges to review the judgment, a move that lawyer Hisyam has said the legal team is still considering. The former premier cannot, however, forgo his jail term pending the disposal of the review.
Defeated and dejected, Najib reportedly remained in the dock following his sentencing, conferring with his family members before being transported in a police convoy to Kajang Prison Complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Najib’s second 1MDB-related corruption trial, involving $681 million traced to his personal bank account, is meanwhile set to resume on August 25.
The ex-premier’s sentence could still be commuted if he receives a full royal pardon from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch. Najib’s historic conviction means he has lost his parliamentary seat and is disqualified from standing for elections for five years after release. Should he receive a pardon, however, Najib will not only be free but can also stand for re-election.
Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie